Bellone lacks urgency and solid fiscal plan

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone gives his first

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone gives his first State of the County address. (April 18, 2012) (Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas)

Joye Brown

Newsday columnist Joye Brown Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006.

bio | email

Suffolk County workers who'd received notice of impending layoffs were surprised last week during a raucous legislative committee meeting. County Executive Steve Bellone had decided to let 42 of them remain on the cash-strapped county's payroll.

"The county executive has restored 42 positions for interim appointments," deputy county executive Ben Zwirn told lawmakers. One Republican lawmaker asked: When did this happen? "In the last couple of weeks," Zwirn replied, dryly.

What went unasked Friday was why the Bellone administration had put so many revenue-generating and fully state or federally funded positions on the chopping block to begin with.

It was a misstep similar to one Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano made last year when he cut funded positions in the county's social services department. He later had to rehire several of those employees to get the department's work done.

A spokeswoman for Bellone pointed out, correctly, that the necessary workers, unlike those in Nassau, never left the payroll.

Bellone has been in office almost six months. But observers, Republican and fellow Democrats alike, increasingly say they are becoming frustrated at his efforts to fix a projected three-year cumulative budget deficit of more than half a billion dollars.

What appears to be lacking, they say, is a sense of urgency and a comprehensive plan.

Bellone has announced mitigation proposals. But, as Newsday reported recently, much of them -- like a proposed increase in ferry fares -- fell through or have yet to be realized. Suffolk, for example, still has requests pending before state lawmakers to establish a traffic violations bureau and increase the number of red-light cameras operating in the county.

Both, if approved by a State Legislature slated to end its session in Albany on Thursday would generate new revenue. That's good. But it will take time to get the projects -- which also have start-up costs -- up and running.

Bellone, wisely, has not repeated Mangano's mistake of publicly fighting with Suffolk's unions and counting as-yet negotiated concessions as savings in a budget plan. Most of Suffolk's union contracts -- unlike Nassau's -- are about to or have expired. Which gives Bellone a chance to negotiate trims in the county's biggest expense, payroll.

Bellone let stand hundreds of layoffs, including those of security guards who work in the county's social services and other centers. Democratic lawmakers on Friday tabled a measure to keep them on, relying on assertions from Zwirn that Bellone is working on an as-yet completed contract with a private firm to save money.

One of the more robust exchanges came over Bellone's plan to cut costs by no longer monitoring sewage treatment plants. "You want to stop monitoring sewage treatment plants and try to give it back to the state?" asked Legis. Edward Romaine (R-Center Moriches).

Yes, Zwirn replied, pointing out that it was a state responsibility that the county had taken on voluntarily.

So is patrolling Long Island's expressways, Romaine retorted. "When was the last time you saw a state trooper?" he asked.

As for workers whose jobs were saved, relief could be short-lived. Some of the positions are being funded by a quarter-cent sales tax that's supposed to go primarily toward preserving water quality.

That tax is slated to end in 2013.